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Random Travel Notes 8 June 25, 2008

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Up and Away.
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An impromptu installment of Random Travel Notes following last week’s business trip with my dad to Singapore. What? Didn’t know I was gone? For shame!

Return of the comeback. I hadn’t been in Singapore for six years since I was on Fellowship studying at Singapore Management University (SMU) back in 2002. The opportunity did present itself over the years (notwithstanding the fact I’d already been studying in New York), but something always seemed to get in the way. So it was rather neat to see how much the city-state has changed in the intervening years. Very progressive, indeed. It’s also worth noting that I received an unexpected surprise upon arrival: at the hotel where we were billeted, we were given a room with a view…of SMU’s new campus. Funny how the universe works.

Cannot understand, lah. Something I noticed after being away for so long: I now have a hard time understanding Singaporeans when they speak. However, this failure to communicate is selective. For instance, the accents of a good number of the people to whom I was newly introduced on this trip was fairly inscrutable to me without great effort to make sense of it on my part, yet I had little difficulty listening to my old Singaporean acquaintances when they spoke. Somewhere in between, however, was a Frenchman I’d met whose English was peppered with Singlish colloquialisms — a strange if not amusing mix.

Eavesdropper. Our Singapore schedule consisted of perhaps six to seven meetings in a day, which my memory appears to have coalesced into one big blur. One of these meetings stands out in my mind, however, because I distinctly remember some fellow seated across the way (this was a more casual affair arranged at a Starbucks location) discreetly listening in to what was being discussed. For the life of me I couldn’t tell whether this guy was eavesdropping by design or circumstance, but he sure was an involved listener, nodding and shaking his head to the points that were being brought up by our little party.

My mirror image. It’s no big secret that I’m learning the ropes from my dad whenever I’m not busy studying. As much fun as this can be it can be an exercise in frustration at times, especially when I sit in meetings where people can tell immediately that I’m too much of a greenhorn to really matter in the discussion. During this trip I got to see this for myself from across the table: one of the groups that we had a chance to meet was represented by a duo comprised of one fairly elderly gentleman and a much younger one. The former was introduced as the adviser to the latter, whom we were told had inherited the company from his father. The sight of them seemed so familiar, and I wondered almost immediately if that’s what I look like whenever I accompany my dad to his meetings.

Taking a toll. One of the burning issues that made headlines in Singapore during our visit was the government’s plan to increase the toll fees (ERP) for vehicles heading to the central business district, extending the times within which these tolls would be in effect and increasing the number of gantries around the city that automatically debit these tolls. A few of my friends were positively incensed about this, and during a friendly discussion about this I pointed out that a.) they didn’t really drive on a regular basis and b.) at least they could see that the toll fees were being put to good use. And then I had an experience that made me understand why this was such a hot topic. On the morning of our departure we had an early meeting scheduled and took a taxi in order to make the appointment. For this, I paid S$5. An hour later, we took another taxi to bring us back to our hotel in order to check out. While the distance was probably the same, this time the cab fare was around S$11. The difference was the ERP, which hadn’t yet kicked in when we left for the meeting.

Friendly Filipino service. It was hard not to notice that a lot of the service personnel at the different hotels and restaurants we visited were staffed by Filipinos. To our delight, many of these were much more adept at their craft than their non-Filipino colleagues. Personally, I think it’s great that these people find opportunities for themselves overseas, even if the unintended consequence is for less adept workers to be left behind in the Philippines (speaking anecdotally, of course).

Being young is getting old. I’m fairly used to being introduced as my father’s son during business engagements, and the one reaction that’s begun to get tiresome from my perspective involves remarks about my age. When I was younger (and lighter!) I could understand why some people thought I was still in high school. Now, years (and pounds!) later, I’m still on the receiving end of the same remarks. Sure, I understand that this is just the way that some people try to be polite…but I could do without it.

COTF. The reason I ended up coming along on this trip was to see Singapore’s Classroom of the Future, an initiative housed in the country’s National Institute of Education. It did not disappoint. Overall, it’s a concept learning environment composed of technologies already available in the market today and is truly a sight to behold. In my opinion, the entire thing had a Star Trek feel to it that was really quite fun. It’s my understanding that there’s already a School of the Future in the works as well, and if this classroom was anything to go by that should be quite a sight to behold as well. However, I could not help but feel a tinge of sadness that the program itself (and most of the software) was sponsored by Microsoft, impressive as it was.

Bling, bling. Is it my imagination, or do Singaporean girls like to dress up on a night out? Granted, we spent most of our time in the central business district, so the crowd was more uppity than usual. At the same time, I’m compelled to wonder whether any of these fashionably clad women were actually working girls. Granted, it’s uncharitable to think such things, but seeing some of the characters they were fawning over, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Unglamorous. The trip was over so quickly it was hard to imagine that we’d been in Singapore at all for most of the week. In retrospect we hardly spent anytime outside the immediate environs of our hotel, which was a pity given the different things happening in the city at the time (e.g., CommunicAsia 2008 and the Great Singapore Sale). I imagine that the experience is much the same, if not more so, for the frequent business traveler. This is something I’ll keep in mind the next time I encounter some idiot that puts on airs because they travel a lot on business: that they probably spend more time toiling away in hotel lobbies instead of living it up in style.

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